07/15/2022 _Perspective

Hijacking the Patriarchy

Pussy Riot’s and LASTESIS’ Networked Performances

TRIGGER AND FLASH WARNING: video contributions depict violent and flashing content [1]

1_From Witnessing to Acting

Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic at the latest, most of us have been hooked on portable, networked devices 24/7 and are one swipe away from photographing, recording and live-streaming human-rights abuses, and state violations. Canadian computer engineer Steve Mann labels such actions as “sousveillance,” a combination of the French words “sous,” below, and “veiller,” to watch, highlighting the subversive potential of inverse surveillance as a tool of social and political resistance. [2] The rise of smartphone and social media users from the mid-2000s onwards, and with it the extended possibilities of processing and distribution of content, have resulted in an unprecedented, civilian agency and visibility. [3] German media scholars Winfried Gerling, Susanne Holschbach, and Petra Löffler point out that with the interactive and collaborative nature of Web 2.0., new digital and networking technologies have catalyzed the faltering position of journalistic gatekeepers and the greater say of civilians. [4] In addition to contributions by journalistic professionals, online content created by amateurs, influencers, and activists is increasingly channeled into media coverage and political opinion-making. The lowered thresholds of media agency and knowledge production resulted in a state of “distributed testimony,” in which the authenticity, credibility, and motivation of online content must be constantly assessed, all too often at the discretion of the viewers. [5] Networked visibility is not only about bearing witness to historical events and societal grievances, but also about creating an affective visual language and a participatory formula to activate decentralized, online communities. Tailoring content for the benefit of its viral performativity is, however, highly ambivalent: while operating against hegemonic structures and those in power, one simultaneously must obey their codes, which reinforces the mechanisms of communicative capitalism such as big data control, digital labor, and online voyeurism. [6]

Activists have cleverly adapted to the shifting media landscape and its dynamics to spread their causes and mobilize international audiences. By intentionally producing or appropriating viral content and targeting online communities, they profit from so-called clicktivism, the act of liking, commenting, and sharing activist posts. [7] Once pushed online, it is almost impossible to track or fully remove activist content, as feeds are constantly updated and remixed on multiverse online platforms. This paradigm shift—from being represented (journalism before Web 2.0.), to being seen (“sousveillance,” “distributed testimony”) and ultimately, to acting (platform hijacking, mobilization of followers)—has been a major game-changer for the formation of political mass movements in past decade, may it be the Arab Spring, labeled as “Facebook Revolution” in 2012, [8] or the #BlackLivesMatter protests, which intensified in June 2020 and sparked “a year of radical political imagination.” [9] Most recently, the impact of online civil disobedience could be observed in the depiction of the Russian invasion of Ukraine since February 24, 2022—a war simultaneously unfolding through memes, smartphone recordings, and TikTok videos that, to varying degrees, seep through state censorship or internet disruptions and enter global news outlets, social media feeds, and instant messengers. [10] Such networked images not only serve to expose injustice and violence, but also to mobilize people on a global scale. Authoritarian regimes have quickly caught on, monitoring or blocking specific websites and social media platforms in an effort to make critical content invisible and prevent the organization of counter-movements. Sometimes they even go so far as to completely shut down internet services, as was the case after the violent military coup in Myanmar in 2021. [11]

The following _Perspective will take a closer look at the operating modes of the feminist collectives Pussy Riot and LASTESIS, who over the past decade have focused global attention on the violation of the rights of women and the LGBTQIA+ community through their networked performances. I first dove into networked activism and feminist collectives while co-curating the cluster SITUATIONS/The Right to Look at Fotomuseum Winterthur in February 2020, [12] the same month as the guilty verdict against sex offender Harvey Weinstein, four months after LASTESIS’ hymn Un Violador En Tu Camino went viral and a year after protests against violence against women had intensified in France, Switzerland (where I was living at the time), and Mexico among other many other countries catalyzed by the #MeToo and #NiUnaMenos movements. As a white art historian and freelance curator, who lives and works in the German-speaking part of Europe under non-authoritarian governments and supported by liberal institutions, I was able to access and collect snippets from various (social) media platforms and newsfeeds over the past two years without fear for my security or of the censorship of my projects. I would often, however, stumble across explicit and violent content that I did not want to see and that haunted me—an experience that many social media users are all too familiar with. So I began to ask myself: How can we make sense of such imagery? How do activists instrumentalize content? And how are viewers or, more accurately, users entangled in these processes? While these questions have been broadly discussed concerning so-called hashtag feminism, [13] there are, as yet, few studies that cross-pollinate the strategies of networked performances, feminist resistance, and online collectivity. Retracing Pussy Riot’s and LASTESIS’ strategically produced, disseminated, and ultimately, interlinked viral protests will serve as an entry point to this blind spot. The methodology of visual research becomes a helpful tool to not only reflect on what networked images capture, but also to demonstrate how they (re-)produce or subvert meaning as an integral part of today’s feminist protest cultures.

The following contribution invites readers to explore five case studies; each is introduced by a curated visual research video that gathers screenshotted articles, smartphone recordings, snippets of the performances as well as live streams, and each is followed by a textual analysis. While the videos, indeed, serve the function of visualization, they also point to the double-standard of (Western) researchers and curators exposing networked visibility while engaging with a specific and often looped academic—as well as social media—bubble (if we can even separate the two anymore). This approach puts on display how online users, like myself, perceive and contextualize activist content: Can we objectively study the activists’ approach, or do we automatically become part of the feedback loop?

2_“Punk Prayer”: Pussy Riot (2012)

“1_Punk Prayer_2012”

The Russian punk band Pussy Riot played a pioneering role in instrumentalizing networked imagery for protest. On February 21, 2012, several videos of a guerilla performance by the feminist activists went viral. For the brief timespan of 40 seconds Pussy Riot, who are part of the so-called Riot Grrrl movement, stormed the altar at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow and protested against the alliance between the state and the orthodox church as well as the Russian legislation on abortion, related to this, which only allows for the termination of pregnancy if it is considered a medical necessity. Pussy Riot’s hyper-feminine appearance due to tight fitted, colorful attire was in stark contrast to their raised fists and powerful kicks. Taken out of the military context, their colorfully modified balaclavas became a cynical anti-uniform, confronting viewers with a caricature of several oppressive systems in Russia: the authoritarian government, and the highly conventional norms resulting in the oppression of women and the LGBTQIA+ community. [14] Pussy Riot furthermore denounced the hypocrisy of the Orthodox Church by imitating acts of prayer and shouting: “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away!”—a satire on the church’s claim of political neutrality. Church employees and members immediately intervened by either breaking up protests or preventing camera recordings of civilian witnesses. Those 40 seconds of protest, however, sufficed for an international broadcast that sparked controversial discussions. The heated debate was fueled by an additional video edit released within 24 hours by Pussy Riot on YouTube, via the ironically titled channel imjustevil666. [15] The video was based on a combination of the already circulating snap shots with footage from another church, and featured a reworked soundtrack. Belarusian sociologist Elena Gapova concludes that this action indicated that Pussy Riot already had an extended audience in mind beyond the spectators on site, which enabled the post-production with their recordings. [16]

Choosing the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour—the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church, and specifically the altar as its most sacred spot—as a protest site was condemned as an unethical act of religious hatred. Critical voices in Russia interpreted their rejection of non-traditional issues and cultural codes as representation of new cosmopolitan elites produced by global capitalism, as Gapova retraced. [17] According to her, it thus also evoked a debate on the interlinkage of “Russianness” and faith in Post-Soviet Russia. [18] In the end, three Pussy Riot activists involved in the incident—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samuzevich—were arrested in March 2012 and faced charges for “hooliganism,” despite some of them labeling the performance as a form of political protest. Russian mass media depoliticized and ridiculed the case, calling it “Anti-Putinist” rather than acknowledging it as “an affirmation of feminist convictions and identity politics.” [19] Yet numerous Western celebrities such as the singer Madonna and kindred feminist organizations such as Femen declared their solidarity with the imprisoned activists, called for their immediate release during their public performances, and protested in front of the court after the trial started on July 30, 2012. Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samuzevich were found guilty and placed in women’s corrective labor colonies outside of Moscow for two years. The verdict was covered by about 86 percent of all world media, [20] which unsurprisingly correlates with skyrocketing Russian internet censorship following the incident, including a blacklisting by the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media of a variety of URLs, domain names, and IP addresses. Hence, UK-based film and digital culture researcher Vlad Strukov has argued that “Pussy Riot brought into question the existing system of experience whereby its transmission over digital networks undermined the shared reality as monitored by the Russian government.” [21]

Despite the ban of the video clips in Russia in November 2012, [22] the impact of Pussy Riot’s protest performance, which became known as Punk Prayer, persists to this day: photographs and video recordings of their action at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour as well as numerous memes created in the aftermath continue to circulate on various news and social media platforms. According to German art historian Kerstin Schankweiler, strong emotions inscribed into and evoked by networked imagery lead to the formation of what she labels “affect communities.” [23] Through the viral dissemination of content, decentralized “image networks” start to branch out transnationally and transform formerly situated protest imagery into generic formulas. [24] For Pussy Riot this manifested in the worldwide adaption of their balaclavas, which have established themselves as a symbol of protest against authoritarian systems and of shared feminist values up until today. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek already predicted this at the time: “The message of their balaclavas is that it doesn’t matter which of them got arrested—they’re not individuals, they’re an idea. And this is why they are such a threat: it is easy to imprison individuals, but try to imprison an idea!” [25]

3_“Putin Will Teach You How to Love the Motherland”: Pussy Riot, 2014


In February 2014, Pussy Riot made headlines again during the Winter Olympics at Sochi. Shortly before the international sporting event, several political activists had been intimidated, prevented from traveling and arrested near the venue. Protests had sparked because of an anti-LGBTQIA+ law, which was passed during preparation for the Games, and which banned “homosexual propaganda” in public and in the media in an effort to to uphold “traditional” values. [26] In reaction, Pussy Riot decided to perform their song “Putin Will Teach You How to Love the Motherland” in front of a large-scale Olympic banner. The members were again dressed in their signature colorful balaclavas and clothing. [27] As civilian and journalistic footage reveals, police forces and a Cossack militia in traditional uniforms dispersed and de-masked the group, viciously attacking the activists with whips and even choking one protester until they lost consciousness. [28] The security forces furthermore disrupted the recordings of bystanders and even attacked them when they tried to interfere with the violent assaults. Within a short period of time numerous videos of the incident were featured on all major Western newspapers, news channels and social media platforms. [29] The ruthless cruelty towards the protesters and against peaceful civilian witnesses overshadowed Sochi’s visual dream factory and what should have been a promotion of Russian grandeur.

Because that the government had already been taking actions against protesters prior to that incident, Sochi became the ideal site for media-effective protest. Following the concept of visual programming of political spaces by German art historian Tom Holert, the venue of the Olympic Games and thus a major media event served as a “showroom” or “gallery” of protest. [30] As US media sociologist Kenzie Burchell more specifically points out, Pussy Riot could easily steal the spotlight since international journalists were already present and a global audience concomitantly was paying close attention to the major sporting event. [31] Although one could not foresee the disproportionately harsh intervention of the security forces, especially against uninvolved third parties, Pussy Riot ultimately benefitted from this escalation by transforming the acts of violence into an act of subversion.

In addition to feeding into an already tense political climate, Pussy Riot laid the foundation to distribute their recordings online. Within 24 hours a music video was edited with pre-shot elements and uploaded on Pussy Riot’s and WIRED’s YouTube channels. The clou of the Sochi video lies in the replication of the civilian gaze which, as I presented in my introduction, had already gained major political clout and thus media resonance during other protest movements in the 2010s like the Arab Spring in Egypt or the Civil War in Syria. By turning the camera on their suppressors, exposing their faces and empowering civilian testimony, Pussy Riot defeated Russian forces with their own weapons. They reversed the violent gesture of de-masking, leading to the loss of group cohesion and identity protection, and undermined the intended display of Russian state sovereignty.

By publishing in collaboration with the magazine WIRED, which has a special focus on net culture, Pussy Riot furthermore intentionally targeted a particularly internet-savvy audience, and designed the video under the parameters of online consumption and shareability. This strategic operating mode, which had already contributed to the vast media coverage and viral spread of Punk Prayer, can be summarized following Burchell under the term hijacking, the subversive takeover of content and platforms. [32] The logics of the attention economy and communicative capitalism highly fed into these processes, as well as the users’ online behaviors, as uninfluential as they may seem. To borrow from US political theorist Jodi Dean:

Sharing, repeating, makes us part of a crowd. Pleasure accrues through repetition: the counts of retweets and likes let us know we are not alone; we see with others as they see with us. Of course, on Twitter, for instance, the fact of a retweet doesn’t tell you where someone stands. A retweet itself may be either for or against, subversive or supportive, sincere or ironic. It might just be a ‘look at that!’ [33]

Pussy Riot regained their agency by re-appropriating the assault’s recordings, catering to a specific, digital-native audience, and orchestrating their dissemination online. Many feminist activists have adapted this twin-fold method in recent years, among them the Chilean collective LASTESIS.

4_“Un violador en tu camino”: LASTESIS, 2019

“3_Un violador en tu camino_2019”

On November 25, 2019, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the feminist collective LASTESIS gathered in front of the Supreme Court in the Chilean capital Santiago and performed to their song Un violador en tu camino, which translates to “A rapist on your path.” It was one of many protests catalyzed by a rise in metro fares that had added to the already high cost of living, sparking unrest in Chile since mid-October 2019. The flash mob intervention had premiered in the city of Valparaíso, one of the centers of the protests, and a recording was released via YouTube on November 20, 2019. Its strategic second performance in front of the Supreme Court of Santiago occurred only five days later. Choosing the highest court in the federal judiciary of Chile resembles Pussy Riot’s approach for their protests in Moscow and Sochi; incorporating an international protest date, however, was a new twist. Deborah Shaw and Deborah Martin, film researchers with expertise in Latin American Cinema, conclude that the originally situated performance “can be seen as a way of [Chilean] women reasserting their visibility at a moment of heightened tensions and violence.” [34]

Instead of exploiting the rather violent “sousveillance”-formula, the contents disseminated by LASTESIS aligned with the protestor’s perspective and gave a sense of immediacy. [35] Through a snapshot recording shared within 24 hours on November 26 via Instagram, and a professionally filmed video released on December 29, 2019 on YouTube, Un violador en tu camino quickly became a worldwide hymn to address transnational violations of women’s rights and was performed around the world, in Mexico, India, France, Kenya and Lebanon, to name only a few. Additional snapshot recordings from these locations caused a ping-pong effect and internationally took over feeds and news outlets. At the core of the song-performance is the chant: “It’s not my fault! Not where I was, not how I dressed! The rapist WAS you! The rapist IS you!” while the gathered masses point into the void. Some of the lyrics are also directed against police violence and ironically quote the official hymn of the Chilean police, the Carabineros: “Sleep peacefully, innocent girl. You don’t have to worry about the bandit. Your sweet and smiling dreams are taken care of by your Carabinero lover.” [36] The accompanying dance moves oppose the suffering of women at the hands of the patriarchy, which manifests in domestic violence, abuse, as well as victim- and slut-shaming. During the song’s performance, the activists, who wear black blindfolds, point accusingly into the void and kneel several times. This humiliating posture refers to an unethical and illegal practice during the Chilean protests: A report by Human Rights Watch claimed that in 2019, Carabineros “forced detainees, especially women and girls, to undress and squat fully naked, a practice banned by police protocols.” [37] Its repetition extends the collective’s structural critique from the domestic field to the level of the state machinery in Chile. [38]

The blindfold emerged from a local, political context: as a symbol for the recent Chilean protests, during which there was an increasing number of eye injuries due to rubber bullets and tear gas. LASTESIS appropriated it as a symbol of the often invisible as well as hushed-up ways that institutions facilitate violence against women. Martin and Shaw argue that the “interplay of visibility and invisibility” is not only part of the semiotics and lyrics of Un violador en tu camino, but also at the core of the “effective visual spectacle” of the performance: “loud,” “eye-catching” and, if I may add—considering its viral dissemination—engaging. [39] Its powerful message of anti-erasure resonated with the increased empowerment of women worldwide, as protests against gender-based violence, including police malpractice, ignited around the world from the mid 2010s onwards after the #NiUnaMenos and #MeToo movements. In becoming a global phenomenon, Un violador en tu camino marked collective experiences in misogynistic cultures that tolerate rape, femicides, and assault. This is also how Pussy Riot became aware of the Chilean activists.

5_“A.C.A.B. All Cops Are Bastards”: 2020



This statement is the introduction to a 9-minute, video manifesto against police violence by Pussy Riot and LASTESIS. The manifesto, which is read in Spanish and subtitled in English, was produced by both collectives, translated by their (online) communities following an open call and uploaded on several online platforms. Pussy Riot shared the video on their YouTube channel on May 27, 2020, on Facebook on May 28, and as a bilingual text on the digital publishing portal Medium, [40] then LASTESIS published the video on their Instagram channel on May 29. [41] The first part of the video shows four LASTESIS activists with masked faces and wearing red overalls reminiscent of the uniforms of women who worked in factories between the World War I and II. They not only line up in front of police stations, but also in front of landmarks like the Monumento a Los Heroes in the protest stronghold of Valparaíso. One person on the far right waves a black version of the Chilean flag. Afterwards, a voice-over read by various members was added to the protest footage. In the second part, a Pussy Riot member criticizes the increasing state control under the guise of Covid-19 restrictions, and urges resistance: “We are facing an unprecedented escalation of state brutality and repression, and with it, the historic opportunity to set it all on fire.” Although the manifesto’s visuals are peaceful, charges were brought up against four members on June 12, 2020 for “inciting violent acts against the institution.” [42] They were based on the manifesto’s violent rhetoric, especially the repeated appeal to “fire on the police,” which has since been removed. This puts the ethics of online protest imagery and its (re-)distribution up for discussion: there is a fine line between exposing violence and reciprocating it. But one could also interpret this as an adaption of a formula, other than the display of violent assaults through sousveillance, that has proven equally successful in attracting views. Similar to what had happened after the arrest of Pussy Riot in 2012, online supporters around the world, including celebrities like actress Natalie Portman, called for the acquittal of the collective under the hashtag #TodasSomosLasTesis. This shows that the “street fire” feared by the Chilean authorities had already been opened through the viral spread of the video online, and the shows of solidarity it ignited on social media.

Pussy Riot’s second strike came shortly after the viral spread of the manifesto. On May 30, 2020, the punk group released the protest song 1312 in cooperation with Argentinian musicians Parcas, Dillom, and Muerjoven and Berlin-based artist Vladimir Storm. The number 1312 is used as a numerical representation of the acronym A.C.A.B. (All Cops Are Bastards). In the animated video, the artists dance and fire weapons amidst a rain of fire alongside police cars and lights. While an uncomfortable silence pervades the video manifesto, whose impact unfolds mainly through the catchy aesthetic and powerful text, the more aggressive lyrics of 1312 confronts listeners with rage and the repetition of the chant “All my friends are dead!” in the beginning. As they had for the translation of the manifesto, once again Pussy Riot mobilized their followers: via their Instagram account, the activists called on people to send them video footage of police assaults for an alternative video. This is the same visual formula that had worked for the viral distribution of their Sochi protest song in 2014; the later montage, however, has not yet been released. On January 4, 2021, Valparaiso’s Court of Guarantee rejected the case and dismissed the charges against LASTESIS.

6_ Pussyverse? Feminist Activism Pushing Towards Web3

“5_Continuará/To be continued_2020–2022”

Looking at the collaborative approach of Pussy Riot and LASTESIS for the Manifesto against Police Violence and the similarly coordinated A.C.A.B hymn, it is striking that the production and dissemination of feminist protest images is increasingly professionalized and unfolds transnationally. By collaborating with like-minded artists, activists, and media outlets, and by creating, editing, and distributing their own video productions, feminist collectives are able to target and cultivate a vast network of supporters. The advantage of such joint protests, which are deeply rooted in social media practices, is their fast and creative instrumentalization of promising digital platforms. This has been catalyzed especially by the Covid-19 pandemic, the enormous expansion of online spaces, and an accompanying proliferate digital literacy. While LASTESIS condemned domestic violence in 2020 via a Zoom Meeting Performance, Pussy Riot has been hosting live-sets on YouTube and the gaming platform Twitch, some of which recycle footage from Moscow and Sochi. They also shared a make-up tutorial to counter-act CCTV-surveillance, using bold patterns to break apart prominent facial features, such as the bridge of the nose, that are targeted by computer vision algorithms. [43] Creating such safe spaces and protective tutorials not only provides the possibility of uncensored and untraceable protests, but also helps to build and empower communities independent from location and (online) access.

Since December 2021, Pussy Riot also has become interested in the NFT (short for non-fungible token) market and the Web3 community, supporting crypto-artists while simultaneously creating their own digital artworks. [44] In March 2022 they created an NFT of the Ukrainian flag and raised 7 million Euro through crypto currencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and USDT to donate for the nation’s defense. [45] Shifting to the digital realm for artistic expression and fundraising purposes allows activists to overcome censorship and frozen bank accounts, thus becoming autonomous from governmental and financial institutions. Alongside the recently proclaimed “Metaverse” by the Zuckerberg empire, Pussy Riot simultaneously began to market their networked actions as “Pussyverse,” which marks not only an effort to further decentralize the collective, but also to counterbalance the digital monopolies of big data companies, that are for the most part under white cis-men’s leadership.

To conclude: Pussy Riot’s and LASTESIS’ networked performances follow various strategies to sustain wide visibility and recruit (online) followers: they link to historically or politically important sites and dates, harness “sousveillance” footage of witnesses, disseminate their causes through as many digital formats and platforms as possible, and cultivate safe cyberspaces. A collective, visual language is essential to the online resonance of the footage. Symbolically charged items of clothing such as balaclavas, blindfolds, and dungarees, as well as lyrics and choreographies that are easy to adapt, create a transnational sense of identity and female empowerment. Pussy Riot’s and LASTESIS’ networked protests are becoming more and more decentralized, participatory and hybrid, while also adapting to technological advances and exposing their risks such as privacy violations or the perpetuation of gender-based discrimination. On the flipside this can even go so far as submitting to the problematic workings of networked visibilities, even if this means reciprocating violent images, rhetoric, and actions to generate (social) media echo and audience engagement. Ever-evolving information and digital media environments have led to a tremendous shift in the audiences’ agency over the past decade: viewers are not merely witnesses or consumers, but agents and sometimes even accomplices of the attention economy. The activation and interweaving of followers thus have become equally important for activist movements; be it through the viral nature of flash mobs or open calls for audio-visual material and translations. Networked feminist collectives are establishing their own, to borrow Gapova’s words, “machinery of visibility,” [46] by undermining censorship and surveillance, hijacking traditional and social media, as well as gaining independence from central banks and governments.

Networked visibility, as this contribution has shown, is not a one-way flow but a double-edged sword whose platform-induced operating modes and the entanglements of its multiverse agents—from activists to algorithms to researchers—need to be carefully cross-examined. On a metalevel, this also applies to this online contribution, which needs to be critically reviewed as an algorithmically, but also personally curated representation of my own feedback loop, which is now fed into yours. As much as this contribution was intended to break the fourth wall of online narratives, to some extent it perpetuates and takes advantage of the problematics it highlighted.

_How to Cite

Mona Schubert. “Hijacking the Patriarchy: Pussy Riot’s and LASTESIS’ Networked Performances.” On_Culture: The Open Journal for the Study of Culture 13 (2022). <https://doi.org/10.22029/oc.2022.1277>.

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